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Spokane's shelter system at risk of losing beds in the midst of city budget challenges

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Nick Bramhall via flickr
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Many homeless service providers in the Spokane area may see less funding next year as federal pandemic relief runs out, and the city of Spokane tightens its budget to make up for increasing costs.

Family Promise, a provider that shelters families, has been at capacity since July. The organization’s executive director, Joe Ader, said they had to turn away nearly 50 people last month because they lacked the space.

Ader said the expiration of many pandemic relief programs, such as rental assistance, and Spokane’s housing crisis, may mean the situation will likely get worse before it gets better.

“Beyond the recession and the COVID funding, is the increase in housing cost, and the limited availability of housing in our community,” Ader said. “Until we dramatically increase the number of housing units, we're going to need emergency shelter.”

Leaders at Family Promise don’t know how many beds they will have funded in January. The same uncertainty has led another provider, Hope House, to announce it will close its night-by-night women’s shelter.

Ader said he has sought aid from both the county, and the city.

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward and the city council haven’t agreed on how much local funding will support existing shelters, and the city’s newest and largest shelter project, the Trent Resource and Assistance Center.

Woodward said she’s asked the city council to use federal pandemic American Rescue Plan – or ARPA – funds to tide shelters over in the new year.

“My suggestion in the 2023 budget ... was too allocate $10 million in ARPA funds to keep those services going through 2023 while we work with providers to start scaling back on the amount of money that they have received because we just don't have those funds,” she said.

Woodward said the suggestion got a lukewarm reception from the city council. She said she also suggested several new funding sources recently authorized by the state legislature, including affordable housing tax dollars.

"In my 2023 budget, we had to look for alternative funding streams, so 1590, 1406, and criminal justice funds were identified to try and fill that gap," she said. "Council was also not supportive of that, so I'm not sure where we're going to get the money, but that's the challenge we're faced with right now."

Her proposed 2023 budget, which the city council is scheduled to adopt next month, calls for a ramping down of support for homeless shelters over the next five years.

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs said the affordable housing tax dollars, 1590 and 1406, are needed housing projects which will do more to solve homelessness in the long-run. He says ARPA funds are also one-time use dollars, and most city council members don’t support using them for ongoing operations.

He says the budget challenges the city’s currently experiencing may mean the city council may need to make difficult choices, such as budget cuts elsewhere, to keep beds available during the coldest months.

“Our fiscal situation has really deteriorated in the last couple of years, our revenues are up, but it just hasn't really been managed well in my opinion and we're trying to figure that out,” he said.

Beggs has introduced a resolution the council may consider in the next few weeks that commits the city to keeping current capacity into 2023.

“It doesn't do any good to add 80 beds at the TRAC shelter, and close Hope House of 80 beds,” he said. “In fact, it’s more expensive to do it that way, not to mention all the partnerships and investments that we have.”

Spokane City Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson, who leads the city council’s finance committee, said there’s few options this late in the budget cycle.

“Going into 2023, the city is already in financial uncertainty because of contracts with our unions,” Wilkerson said. “Our unions, most of them got about a 7 percent raise, but our revenue did not increase 7 percent.”

In addition to the new labor agreements, the city also is facing increased costs because of inflation.

Both Wilkerson, and Beggs say they believe the TRAC shelter has also contributed to the city’s budgeting challenges.

According to city budget presentations from October, homeless spending in 2022 cost around $10.9 million, with about $2.8 million going to TRAC. That shelter is estimated to cost more than $6 million next year.

Woodward says the city council gave her no choice but to open TRAC because of a law they passed requiring her to provide a warming, or cooling space when temperatures are below freezing, unsafely hot or air quality is poor.

“Council will often through ordinance require the administration to stand up shelters, and programs without any idea of how we’re going to fund them,” she said.

While city council leaders and the mayor may still be far apart on how to balance the budget, both say they the city still needs shelter beds through the coldest months.

Wilkerson said the city council might pull enough funds out of reserves to cover Hope House and Family Promise’s shortfall during the coldest months. After that, they’ll likely need to seek funding from other sources, or change the services they offer to things that are eligible for more state and federal grants, like transitional housing. She said other governments should consider contributing, as well as Spokane County, and Spokane Valley, in keeping shelters sustainable.

Woodward said local shelters have always known that their extra pandemic funding would eventually go away. She said the city is meeting with shelter providers Friday to discuss the city’s financial challenges.

“We are going to do whatever we can to find the funding necessary to keep their operations going, but with also the conversation that these are not ongoing levels of funding that we can sustain,” Woodward said.

Rebecca White is a 2018 graduate of Edward R Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. She's been a reporter at Spokane Public Radio since February 2021. She got her start interning at her hometown paper The Dayton Chronicle and previously covered county government at The Spokesman-Review.